Wednesday, 02 May 2018 09:26

AFL's sexual harassment woes a symptom of wider malaise

by Kristen Hilton, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner

Problems of responding to workplace sexual harassment are by no means limited to high profile organisations such as the AFL.

This week, the Australian Football League has come under fire for its handling of a sexual harassment claim involving Fremantle Football Club’s coach. Problems of responding to workplace sexual harassment are by no means limited to high profile organisations such as the AFL - we know harassment and discrimination can happen in every workplace and at every organisational level, and we know it often goes unreported. What is clear is that we need to start talking about best-practice responses, and we need to support organisations who are grappling with these questions.

#MeToo has caused profound anxiety among companies, organisations and public bodies across our state who now see sexual harassment as a major organisational risk. It is. It is also unlawful, unethical and harmful. A greater motivation to both prevent and properly respond to sexual harassment is a much needed correction to decades of sweeping it under the carpet.

While there are many more stories that will be and should be told, the next phase of #MeToo must also be about helping organisations like the AFL do better at responding to sexual harassment allegations. Managers desperately need robust mechanisms that are based on inherent values of respect and equality, for addressing incidents that are arising every day. The types of issues we hear are how to strike the balance between supporting and believing a victim and also being fair with the accused? How can they be transparent and accountable while also avoiding exposing and ‘shaming’ women?

Here at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, our guiding principle is that all responses must be victim-centric. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to sexual harassment. This sets it apart from many other serious workplace issues, sexual harassment is not like negligent accounting. Oversight, training and robust policies are critical but this must also be accompanied by an unequivocal shift in culture and values about how women and men can expect to be treated in the workplace. Moreover, unlike negligent accounting, the damage is not merely financial; it is human. And the response must be focused on repairing and preventing damage.

Step one for employers: Listen. Take the allegation seriously. Don’t minimise it. Take notes and keep records. Reassure the victim that they have done the right thing by reporting and that they will be supported.

Step two: Offer professional support. This may be internal, such as a trained HR professional, or external, such as a professional counselling organisation.

Step three: Ask the complainant how they want the complaint dealt with. Options include company-wide or team-specific training; new policies; speaking to the alleged perpetrator in a variety of ways; engaging in an internal or external conciliation processes such as the Commission; or seeking external legal advice with a view to court action. Many complainants simply want to stop others suffering the same harm; there are many prevention measures, such as robust reporting mechanisms, bystander action and culture change, which can be discussed with complainants.

Step four: Accept the complainants’ wishes, and honour them. Many complainants simply want to be heard. Many wish to be anonymous. Some want compensation, or for the perpetrator to be moved elsewhere. Most importantly and most commonly complainants want the harassment to stop. This, and for the perpetrator to rightly be held to account, are the most pressing motivations for making a complaint. Take them seriously.

Step five: If the victim wishes to engage the alleged perpetrator in any way, the perpetrator must be provided with procedural fairness and natural justice. This does not mean that the two need to be brought together. It means that the perpetrator needs to be provided the opportunity to respond to the complaint made. Where possible and appropriate, work with the perpetrator in a constructive way.

Step six: It is important that all processes and investigations of these complaints are timely and that the complainant is updated on progress. Good communication is key.

These are turbulent times. The pendulum is swinging erratically between believing women and being fair to the accused. Both are possible. Both are necessary. We will find a new equilibrium, where victims of sexual harassment are encouraged and supported to speak out, where natural justice is a developed part of a multi-faceted complaints process, where having each other’s back in the workplace does not mean secrecy but the courage and decency to call out awful behaviour.

Time's up, folks. We can and must do better.

We can help

If you have been sexually harassed you can call the Commission on 1300 292 153, chat with us online or submit an online complaint form.

The Commission helps people to resolve complaints of sexual harassment by providing a free, impartial conciliation service. 

At conciliation both people sit down and negotiate an agreed outcome – this might be an apology, equal opportunity training in the workplace, or a financial settlement.

You can also seek counselling or support from 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Media contact

Kat O'Shea
Mobile: 0459 114 657
Email: kat.o'shea@veohrc.vic.gov.au

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